Stephen M. Rivers dies at 55; Hollywood publicist and political activist

Veteran Hollywood publicist and political activist Stephen M. Rivers died Tuesday after a lengthy bout with prostate cancer. He was 55.

Over the span of his publicity career, Rivers represented some of the most recognizable names in entertainment, including director and actor Kevin Costner, actor Richard Dreyfuss, director Oliver Stone, playwright Anna Deavere Smith, actress Jane Fonda and former super-agent Michael Ovitz.

“I visited Stephen only a few days ago, and he looked and acted extremely well considered his condition, so I was absolutely shocked by the very sad news,” Ovitz said. “We worked side by side for five years together, and not only was he the most wonderful person to be around, he became a trusted advisor and a friend of the family. He handled his duties with the most extraordinary grace and professionalism at all times. His even temperament was a great asset to [Creative Artists Agency] and to me. He will be deeply missed.”

Rivers had a passion for politics and social activism. In addition to his marketing and publicity campaigns for films, he helped to organize events for the Middle East peace organization Seeds for Peace, the Magic Johnson Foundation and the music industry’s Rock the Vote initiative. In 2006, Rivers worked on the U.S. media launch of Product (Red), in which corporations pledge profits from the sale of certain items toward AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Africa.

The publicist traveled to Cuba more than two dozen times in the last decade, seeking to foster improved U.S.-Cuba relations. He brought filmmakers Costner, Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh to Havana to present their films to audiences there and participated in several congressional and trade delegations to the island. In December 2008, he organized a visit by Benicio Del Toro to the Havana Film Festival for the premiere of “Che.”

Before launching his own firm in 1994, Rivers worked for four years at Creative Artists Agency, handling a range of the agency’s talent and oversaw the agency’s governmental affairs and political and charitable activities. He organized a major Democratic fundraiser held at CAA with President Clinton.

Prior to joining CAA, Rivers worked for many years with Jane Fonda, serving as her spokesman on a number of her entertainment, business, political and charitable projects. He organized the actress’ public activities, including her 1984 visit to the former Soviet Union to campaign for the release of Jewish refusenik Ida Nudel and her 1987 trip to Poland to meet with Lech Walesa and lend support to the then-outlawed Solidarity movement.

Rivers, who was born Feb. 17, 1955, in Springfield, Mass., began his career working for the United Farm Workers union, serving as an organizer of the grape boycott in New England before coming to California to serve as an assistant to the late UFW President Cesar Chavez.

“When you look at his three-decades plus body of work, Stephen had a rare commitment to passion and to changing the world,” said veteran publicist Howard Bragman, who knew Rivers for 20 years and considered him a friend. “While he always understood commerce, he also understood ideology.”

Rivers is survived by his mother, Ellen Rivers, and three sisters, Christina Rivers, Patricia Rivers-Sergienko and Tracey Mallory.

Services are pending.